CHESTER, Pa. – There are a lot of questions the Philadelphia Union will have to answer in the offseason as they look to rebound from a disappointing 2017 campaign.
None bigger than who they will sign to be their new No. 10 as they look for a marquee playmaker to slide behind leading scorer CJ Sapong and in front of the veteran central midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.
“First and foremost, you look in your backyard,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said at his end-of-year press conference on Wednesday. “And if you can’t find it in your backyard, you find it somewhere else. That’s the way we do business here.”
In terms of the quality he’s looking for, Stewart referenced Tranquillo Barnetta, a Swiss midfielder who effectively filled the role for Philly in 2015 and 2016 with “great work rate” and how much he was on the ball. The Union sporting director also mentioned the New York Red Bulls’ Sacha Kljestan as an example of a player in MLS who’s “on the ball as much as possible.”
“I think that’s fantastic,” Stewart said. “When it comes to that position, that’s something that we search for.”
Both players had their contract options declined this week with Alberg then agreeing to a deal with Bulgarian side CKSA Sofia. But Stewart said the Union may look to bring Ilsinho back on a smaller deal, perhaps to provide depth at the No. 10 and on the wing, where the club will lose free agent Chris Pontius (who Stewart said they won’t extend an offer to) and possibly Fabian Herbers.
“There are certain players on the roster that we have not picked up an option that we are still interested in, and I dare say Ilsinho is one of those players,” said Stewart, later adding that fellow Brazilian Fabinho and Herbers also fall into that category.
Still, the Union will clear a significant amount of salary space with the subtractions of Alberg, Pontius and Maurice Edu, among others. And they’ll almost certainly reinvest that money by acquiring at least one difference-maker. Stewart said that while the focus in 2017 was to build a stronger foundation “from the bottom and from the side,” they’re now in a better spot to “sprinkle in from the top.”
But when asked if they’ll increase their spending to keep up with some other teams in MLS, Stewart admitted that the team won’t “go overboard,” raising questions about whether the team will acquire a true MLS star this winter.
Instead, Stewart, who was hired in part because of the analytics-based style he was known for in his previous job at AZ Alkmaar, once again stressed the importance of how the club has recently deployed more resources toward their youth academy, a USL affiliate and a new practice facility.
“We have those conversations and I have to say that our ownership group with [majority owner Jay Sugarman] leading that has been good,” Stewart said. “But we’ve also chosen a path that we have as a club, that we started at least since I’ve been here two years ago. That’s our pathway. That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be, and the most important part is we’ve got to come to grips with that.
“Can you spend like the Torontos? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different way, and I think we’ve found that way. When you look around at what we have at the club and the facilities we have, we’re still building because a lot of times it’s only seen in player spending. But this is such a young club that there’s so much that needs to be built. You can bring in the best player you want but if you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s not going to work.”